Indy Buzz Beginning
February 11, 2001 | 12:00 A.M. EST
The Indianapolis 500, more than three months off, is just one of those things that stays in our society's collective consciousness. You know, just like we all know the story of Goldilocks and the three bears, cringe at chalk squeaking on the blackboard, and can feel your pain when you say thank you to the police officer who has just given you a ticket.
You just can't avoid the Indy 500.
What's going on with the Indy 500 that is so newsworthy? Nothing really, just a lot of buzz. It seems like everybody who has ever even looked at an open-wheel car, much less sat in one, is trying to get to Indianapolis for Memorial Day weekend.
Michael Andretti, for one, has been causing a stir. The 38-year-old superstar has been telling people that he is finalizing plans to make a return to the Indy 500. Andretti and his father, Mario, are part of the legend and lore at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, though few of the stories have happy endings.
Andretti hasn't raced in the Indy 500 since the formation of the Indy Racing League in 1996, having had a full-time ride on the rival CART circuit since then. The Indy classic had been a CART staple before then, but IRL founder Tony George is also the owner of IMS and made the 500-mile classic the cornerstone of his new series.
Andretti is still a regular on the CART circuit, and is the winningest active driver in the series. But the times are changing, and the freeze between CART and the Indy 500 has been thawing.
Juan Montoya, the 1999 CART champ, raced in just one Indy Racing Northern Light Series event last year. He won the 2000 Indy 500 for Ganassi Racing, a CART team that will once again be racing at Indy this year.
CART car owner Roger Penske used to also own the Indy 500, helping to make it The Greatest Spectacle in Racing. His drivers won 10 of the races before the split. But Penske's already announced that he'll be in May for the start of summer, fielding cars for defending CART champ Gil de Ferran and Helio Castroneves.
Who else has been making reservations at the Memorial Day party?
Arie Luyendyk is coming out of retirement just to run in that one race. Scott Pruett, who lost his Winston Cup ride last month, has been trying to find a seat for the event. CART veteran Mauricio Gugelmin is supposedly teaming up with fellow Brazilian Felipe Giaffone for a two-car effort.
In addition, an Unser and a Mears are both racing in the Indy Racing Northern Light Series in 2001. Both say that the chance to run in the Indy 500 played a big impact on their decision to join Galles Racing.
Unser Jr. has nine Indy 500 wins in his family, including two of his own, and jumped to the IRNLS in 2000.
"I made the decision because I just had to get back to the Indy 500," Unser said.
Rising star Mears is the nephew of Rick Mears, who won at Indy four times. The recent announcement that he would race for Galles in 2001 was full of Indy 500 talk.
"He was very supportive of my decision," Casey said of his uncle. "I'm sure he'll be a big part of things when I'm at Indy."
On Thursday, Budweiser officials announced that its brand would be at Indy also. The beer will be an associate sponsor for both Unser and Mears at Indy. One of the reasons that all these drivers and teams can be talking about going to Indy in May is because the sponsors want to be there. Those big companies just love to be part of the buzz. The 2001 Indy 500 set a record with more than $102 million worth of sponsorship exposure for sponsors. It was the first time any motorsports event topped the $100-million barrier.
Ever hear of boxer Ken Norton? The former world champion announced in late January that he was looking for a sponsor for an Indy team.
"My goal is for Ken Norton Motorsports to become another world champion and win the Indy 500," Norton said. "No other motorsports event creates as much excitement as the Indianapolis 500."
Now, that's some heavyweight buzz.